Canucks favored to bring Stanley Cup home to Canada

By Steve Keating

Canada celebrated an Olympic ice hockey gold medal won in Vancouver last year but now it is a silver chalice that has the country preoccupied.

Not since the Montreal Canadiens lifted the last of their 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has Lord Stanley's famous mug been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city and the country is thirsting to see that drought end.

Such is the grip hockey has on Canadians that a federal election debate between men running to become Prime Minister was rescheduled so not to conflict with the first game of the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins playoff series.

While the Canadiens have hoisted more Cups than any other franchise, it is the Canucks that are the favorites among the 16 teams that begin a two-month playoff grind on Wednesday that will see the winner win four punishing best-of-seven series.

The Canucks finished the regular season with the NHL's top record, scored more goals than any other team and allowed the fewest against.

Their powerplay was number one, penalty killing among the league's best and also boast and offense led by Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Daniel won the Art Ross trophy this season as the NHL's top point-getter with 104 points, succeeding his brother Henrik who won the award last year.

"We think about it every day (winning the Cup)," said Henrik. "To win here in Canada in a market like this ... that's something you dream about in the summertime when you spend your hours in the gym and everything.

"It's a tough trophy to win but it would be unbelievable."

TRICKY START

The Canucks' quest for a first Cup gets off to a tricky start with an opening round clash against old nemesis the Chicago Blackhawks.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks had to wait until the final game of the regular season on Sunday to learn they had secured the eighth and final seed in the West but will like their chances of advancing having knocked Vancouver out in the conference semi-finals the last two seasons.

In other Western Conference matchups, the second seed San Jose Sharks will try to put years of post-season disappointment behind them when they launch their campaign against the Los Angeles Kings while the Detroit Red Wings, in the playoffs for a 20th consecutive year, play the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Anaheim Ducks, led by Corey Perry, the NHL's only 50 goals scorer this season, enter the postseason packing plenty of punch as they take on the Nashville Predators.

In the East, the Washington Capitals earned the top seed for the second straight season and will try to avoid stumbling at the first hurdle like they did last year crashing out to the eighth-seeded Canadiens.

The Capitals are led by Alexander Ovechkin but the charismatic Russian sniper scored a career-low 32 goals this season as Washington put a higher premium on team defense.

Washington, however, will need Ovechkin's scoring touch in the opening round as they meet a New York Rangers team that relies heavily on Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres will also put a spotlight on netminding.

The Flyers, who made it to the Cup finals a year ago, will go with the duo of Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher that did not post a shutout all season while the Sabres will need All-Star Ryan Miller back in top form.

The Pittsburgh Penguins begin the playoffs with Sidney Crosby still on the sidelines dealing with concussion symptoms and will no doubt miss their captain's scoring touch when they open against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There will be no lack of bad blood in the East's other matchup as Original Six rivals Montreal and Boston renew a long-running feud that reached new levels of bitterness last month when Montreal's Max Pacioretty was rammed into rinkside partition by Zdeno Chara leaving him with a broken neck.

(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)